Picardy. Part Two.
Picardy. Part Two. The Somme.
The narrow, rural roads and field-side tracks mean that a ‘cross bike is ideal for touring the Somme battlefield. We spent an afternoon riding around, visiting memorials and cemeteries. We could have occupied ourselves for a lot longer. It is a sombre sort of tour, only to be expected given the nature of the history here, but absolutely fascinating.
We started with a visit to the informative 1916 museum in Albert. The displays are housed in the crypts underneath a church, used by the British during WW1, but a few miles behind the front line. Heading out of the tunnels we found it was lunchtime and, being France, nothing was open. When in France, eat at McDonald’s, it seems.
From Albert I wanted to head to the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme at Thiepval, but a diversion on the Albert-Bapaume road took us in a random direction. Eventually I worked out that we were close to the Welsh memorial at Mametz. This is where the day became emotional for me. The fight for Mametz wood was ultimately just one bloody skirmish in the story of slaughter that is the Somme, but standing at the dragon’s feet, staring at the wood 100m away and imagining what happened 99 years ago made me shiver. Following in the footprints of the Welsh troops, crossing the field and entering the wood and then seeing the endless shell-holes made me shed tears. I later found out that my great-grandfather fought his way through that hell. How did anybody survive that maelstrom, and how did they hold onto their sanity? Tracks head off in various directions through the wood. It feels vaguely disrespectful to ride there but a great way to explore.
We then rode to Thiepval where the Lutyens-designed memorial dominates the ridge. I have been to the Menin Gate at Ypres before and found myself unable to speak because of the unbearable sadness of the place. Thiepval didn’t have the same emotional impact, maybe because we were unable to get close due to the work being carried out around it. It is impressive, nevertheless.
Finally we pedalled out to Beaumont-Hamel, the Canadian memorial. I had read that within the grounds were unrestored trenches. As familiar as I am with WW1 history, I was staggered by how complex and extensive the trench system was. We only spent a short time at Beaumont-Hamel. We could have occupied half a day walking around the grounds.
I am glad I spent a day touring the Somme. The bike added to the quietude – no coach tours, no tourist hordes, just my girls and me trying to answer a simple question. Why?
If you go, there are suggested cycle-tours in various places on the web, but you can head in many directions to learn about the battle. Prepare to be saddened and perhaps, hopefully, to rage at the futility of war.